Do you ever find yourself wondering why you overeat when you know it's hurting your health and figure? Or do you ever wonder why someone who takes drugs or drinks too much alcohol just won't stop, even though it's hurting a career and family? A look inside of the brain could change the way you see people who do just that.
Is this breakthrough science?
"It really is. It is a brand-new concept and idea that obesity and drug abuse might have so many commonalities," says Dr. Patricia Molina, chairwoman of the Department of Physiology at LSU Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC).
In late January, doctors and scientists from LSUHSC gathered to hear a new discovery from Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Scientists from several other institutes around the U.S. were listening by live video teleconference.
"When dopamine goes up, something extraordinary happens. It's actually almost magical when you think about it," Volkow said as she presented her research.
Rated by Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report as one of the most influential people of our time, Volkow discovered what is going on in the brain that makes certain people need to keep using drugs is similar to what makes others need to keep overeating.
Molina was at the video conference listening to the lecture. "What the research has begun to show is what areas of the brain turn on when somebody sees an image of a Big Mac or an image of a huge Slurpee or a big order of fries," Molina says.
Here's what the research found. First: Food and even more powerful drugs activate circuits in the brain that make us feel good, reward us and motivate us to keep doing the behavior. It's nature's built-in system to make sure we keep eating. Deprive yourself of food, and the pleasure-reward circuit will be stimulated even more when you finally eat. Drugs, including nicotine, do the same thing in a more powerful way. But this seduction process is only the beginning.
Second: Once you get the high and have pleasure, that experience is memorized by your brain, so much so that even the environment where the drug or food experience happened makes your brain react, signaling you to eat or use.
"That's why I say it's almost like science fiction," Volkow continued in her lecture.
For drug users, Volkow says, just seeing a video of the place where they use drugs lights up the same pleasure area of the brain as taking the drugs. Think about how malignant that cue is to get that drug now, and consider how that relates to food.
"We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements for food," Molina says. "We are constantly being exposed to larger portions at whatever restaurant we go to and now we are starting to understand the neurochemistry that is underlying these behaviors."
Now here comes the third and final blow: In people who compulsively overeat or use drugs, the area of the brain that puts on the brakes to stop this behavior cannot do its job as well. Those brains can't grab and use as much of the pleasure chemical. In fact, in compulsive overeaters, smokers, drug and alcohol users and with age, the brain has fewer places for the pleasure chemical to lock on and do its job. These places are called receptors for the brain chemical or neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Here's what is so interesting: In animals, when doctors temporarily added places or receptors in the brain to grab and use the pleasure chemical, the animals instantly and voluntarily wanted far less alcohol or drugs or food.
How do you fight biology when your brain is demanding you overeat and rewards you for overeating and the person sitting next to you doesn't have that problem? How do you go against such powerful primal urges?
"(The research) will probably lead to development of new medications," Molina says.
One medication being studied for weight loss blocks the brain from grabbing onto the powerful chemical in marijuana. It is approved in Mexico but not in the U.S.
So in the meantime, while scientists try to find the coveted pill for people whose brains drive them to overeat, Molina recommends finding substitutes that can stimulate pleasure chemicals in the brain.
The first is exercise. While not as powerful as drugs or food, it produces pleasure chemicals in the brain for days and helps intensify pleasure from other activities. It even makes drug abusers use less.
Video games are another way to stimulate the brain pleasure circuits, as long as you keep their use in check.
"China has a tremendous problem with children addicted to video games — kids that will not eat (or) go out of a room." Molina says. "(They) refuse to go to school because they are so addicted to the video games."
Something to think about while you exercise on your Wii: Just as we are born with completely different looking eyes, noses, mouths and hair, now we know our brains are different, too.
Dr. Henri Roca, a family and integrative medicine expert at LSUHSC, says if you have the genetic tendency to be addicted to food, it will always be a challenge to not overeat. But he says with hard work in a 12-step program like Overeaters Anonymous, that tendency can be managed.
"That biological tendency will always be the case and you can't live without food, so it's always going to be a challenge," Roca says. "It's not about being on your best behavior; it's about changing so new behaviors that you choose are ones you enjoy and will do long term.
"For those of us who have worked in the field, it's been very clear that you can be addicted to food. You can also be addicted to taste. But you can overcome it. Now that takes work ... and there may be some people (whose tendency is) so severe that they will have difficulty overcoming it, but we can usually choose to behave differently. Look at all the 12-step programs. All the 12-step programs are essentially mind, body and spiritual techniques to really help the person overcome that perhaps genetic predisposition."
Look for Meg Farris' Medical Watch reports, including "Weight Loss Wednesday" and "Wrinkle Free Friday" stories, weeknights on WWL-TV Channel 4 and anytime on www.wwltv.com.